The Indestructible Beat

South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim found a mentor in Duke Ellington, a fan in Mandela, a community in American free jazz, and a muse in his once-lost country

Abdullah Ibrahim remembers when playing his music could literally be a matter of life or death, when merely coaxing a song in praise of his native land and culture was a call to revolution. Beginning in 1959 he led what some have termed the first modern jazz band in South Africa, the Jazz Epistles. The group's very existence was considered an act of defiance by the apartheid regime. So was its sound--a form called township jazz, which Ibrahim describes now as an assertion of black cultural pride.

"It was a response to the self-imposed sense of worthlessness," says the Cape Town native, speaking over the phone from his part-time home in New York City's Chelsea Hotel. "We were saying that what we had was valid. Besides the music itself, we said we'd play regardless of what you say. It was part of the whole resistance movement."

"Bach? Beethoven? We've got better": pianist-composer Abdullah Ibrahim
"Bach? Beethoven? We've got better": pianist-composer Abdullah Ibrahim

Ibrahim, who brings his trio with bassist Belden Bullock and drummer George Gray to the Dakota this week for his first local appearance in more than a decade, remembers the price paid by musicians who refused to play by Pretoria's rules. "Families were incarcerated and shot," he says. "Some people went to prison. The music was banned. People were cut off from the country, sent into exile."

Ibrahim, now 65, was known as Dollar Brand at the time (he changed his name after converting to Islam in 1968). He now speaks of those days in a tone even quieter than his usual sandy whisper. A bandmate in the Epistles, Kippie Moeketsi, was among apartheid's casualties. It was Moeketsi who first brought the proud style and sound of cool jazz and bop to a South African music scene dominated by swing and traditional marabi (a fusion of Dixieland and tribal musics). Ibrahim fondly recalls the gifted alto saxophonist playing a Mozart clarinet concerto by heart. Moeketsi was also a vociferous opponent of the ruling regime, and when Ibrahim and Epistles trumpet player Hugh Masekela left the country in the early Sixties, Moeketsi stayed. When he died years later, he was penniless and broken down, banned from most clubs by authorities.

That Ibrahim eventually found good fortune was a matter of just that. By 1963 he and his future wife, singer Sathima Bea Benjamin, had resettled in Zurich, where Ibrahim performed regularly at the Africana Club. One night he caught the ear of Duke Ellington, who invited him to a recording session. When Benjamin walked in, Ibrahim recalls, Ellington asked her, "What do you do?" She told him she sang. "Well, we'll start with you."

The legendary bandleader recorded her with the backing of Ibrahim's trio and pianist Billy Strayhorn, and the sessions produced two classic albums: 1963's Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio, and Benjamin's own A Morning in Paris. (The latter was accidentally lost for decades, then recovered and released just two years ago on Ibrahim's longtime label, Enja.) Ibrahim subsequently appeared with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and even led the group some half a dozen times. Duke remained a mentor to Ibrahim until his death in 1974. Two years later, after a brief return to South Africa, Ibrahim and Benjamin moved with their two children to New York City. The pianist spent 14 years there before returning to his Cape Town home in 1990, after Nelson Mandela's release from prison.

During his long exile, Ibrahim established himself as a brilliant and imaginative musician and composer on the international jazz scene. He was a key player in New York's free-jazz circles of the early Sixties and a collaborator with the likes of Elvin Jones, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Max Roach, and Don Cherry. "We used to play total improvisation," he remembers. "It was fantastic, but nobody wanted to hire us. That avant-garde period when we were all in New York City actually was a climax of our individual quests for perfection, because we used to practice 20 hours a day. Then we realized we had accomplished what we had wanted to do."

Although he remains well below the radar of the general public outside South Africa, Ibrahim is held in rare esteem by jazz aficionados. More than any other artist, his music brings American jazz full circle to its African roots. You can hear the continent in his subtle phrasing and percussive attack, in the chattering bustle of such pieces as "African Marketplace," in the openness of his arrangements evoking the sweeping landscapes of the African savanna. Yet Ibrahim has also become conversant in Ellington's tonal colors, Thelonious Monk's syncopation, and the intricacies of European classical music. You can hear the blues and gospel he loved as a child, and the Arabic music from his later Islamic studies. The pianist seems to have absorbed the entire history of jazz and re-Africanized it, creating a synthesis that feels both magical and natural.

 

Ibrahim is a soft-spoken man, but his voice still resounds powerfully, as if drawing on some subtle reservoir of hidden strength. In conversation he picks out parallels between jazz improvisation and solutions to the lingering effects of apartheid. When talking history, he speaks in terms of hundreds of millions of years. He's contemplative, much like the music in his post-apartheid period.

Before establishing his Nineties trio, Ibrahim led a larger group he called Ekaya, whose raucous horn section seemed to create a celebratory semblance of the homeland that was then out of reach--Ekhaya being the Zulu word for home. By contrast, much of the composer's work now suggests the hard work of rebuilding South African society.

Like Ellington, the pianist still juggles a multitude of projects: He writes folk songs and operas, works with large orchestras and alone. African Suite, his latest on Enja, features his trio paired with the Youth Orchestra of the European Community. Ibrahim collaborated with conductor Daniel Schnyder to rearrange some of the pianist's best pieces for string orchestration, emphasizing the symphonic elements lurking within even his most overtly African traditional material.

For Ibrahim, even such complex arrangements derive from the African vocal and storytelling tradition. "I write songs," he says simply. "If you want to learn traditional African drumming, you have to learn the language first. You play the language." In fact, most of Ibrahim's compositions have lyrics. A few of these, he says, have been recorded, while others have appeared in the album notes. (One of his forthcoming projects involves rerecording all his instrumentals with their original lyrics.)

Along with these traditions, Ellington's presence remains evident throughout Ibrahim's work, an essence he described with an old anecdote. "During the apartheid years, there was a state of being--you would almost say it was like 'cool' now," he says. "Jazz musicians sort of adopted it. We'd call it 'perfect timing.'" Amid the turmoil of the times, "cool" suggested exerting a minimum amount of effort while achieving maximum results. "Duke was like that in music."

Today that Ellington aura still gives Ibrahim's stuff a certain regal bearing not quite out of place in a man who considers himself a populist. His composition "Mannenberg" is the unofficial national anthem of the new South Africa. Lifting the title from a local town, Ibrahim recorded a definitive version of the tune in the mid-Seventies, with a stirring tenor-sax solo by Basil Coetzee. The track quickly became a staple movement song. "It appealed to everybody, across all lines, all barriers, because we kept it in the genre of the traditional music," Ibrahim says. "It was like saying we are endorsing our right to be us." When democracy was finally established and Nelson Mandela elected president, Ibrahim was invited to perform at his inaugural. He remains awed by the sight of a quarter-million people peacefully blanketing Pretoria, the capital and citadel of apartheid. "There was a sense of euphoria, but there was also a sense of urgency," he remembers. Ibrahim also got a special endorsement at that time. After attending one of his shows, Mandela went backstage and said, "Bach? Beethoven? We've got better."

Better or not, Ibrahim is among his era's most eclectic composers. He recently toured with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the great South African a cappella vocal group, and he plans a joint project in the near future. "Joseph Shabalala [Ladysmith's leader] and I did a television program in South Africa several years ago and did two songs," he says. "We went into the studio and walked towards the studio door, and Joseph said, 'What are we going to do?' And I said, 'Start singing.' And by the time we got into the door we had both songs. We're all parts of South Africa. We're parts of the whole."

Ibrahim's pride in being an integral part of his community led him to establish a music academy last year with facilities in Cape Town and Johannesburg. "We call the project M7, which is also the jazz symbol for a major chord," he explains. "It encompasses music, movement, medicine, meditation, martial arts. Our disenfranchised communities do not have access to these facilities.

"I was denied access to universities, denied access to medical school, denied access to music conservatories," he continues, hitting a sonorous verbal stride. "Apartheid exists everywhere. It's all part of the separation of things. That's why we started this project. We are unifying all these disciplines which in traditional society were all united, then scattered."

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